Photo by Clint Farlinger

Wisconsin has no shortage of scenic hiking trails, but one of its most unique isn’t found in the backwoods. For decades, locals and tourists alike have made the Geneva Lake Shore Path one of the state’s most popular foot-powered destinations.

Framed by a spring-fed lake and a jaw-dropping chain of historic estates in southeastern Wisconsin, this 20-plus-mile path has been unofficially dubbed “The People’s Path.” The moniker comes from local ordinances mandating the entire shoreline be open to the foot-going public. The heart of the path stretches through Lake Geneva, but also treads through the communities of Williams Bay, Fontana and Linn.

In late May, I’m out here with about 200 seventh graders from Lake Geneva Middle School. Like anyone with a massive but ignored jewel in their backyard, most of our students have never set foot on the path. Once they do, they realize what they’ve been missing. From beginning to end, the conversations of local seventh graders aren’t that much different from those of the adult tourists walking alongside them.

“Look at that house! It’s huge!”

“Look at that old wooden boat! That’s awesome!”

“What kind of job do you have to have to afford a house like this?”

“Where’s the next bathroom?”

And so it goes, mile after wonderful mile. Like most on the shore path, we tackle just a portion of it and end with a picnic. Starting at the boat launch in Williams Bay and ending in Lake Geneva’s Library Park, our eight-mile stretch is the easiest on the lake. It takes the slowest of us about three hours. Those with a quicker clip do it in about two-and-a-half.

In our midst, there is also an over-achiever: Jennifer Kinney, a seventh grade math teacher. In the summer, she also teaches in a leadership program at the local high school, whose culminating moment is a hike of the entire lake.

“The kids really appreciate how beautiful it is and how they don’t ever get to do all of the lake,” says Kinney. “We’ll maybe get one kid per summer, who has done half the lake. Rarely do you get a kid who has done the entire lake.”

Like the tourists who flock here, Kinney and her charges are drawn to the shore path by its storied past.

“There is so much history here,” she says, “and the kids have mansions they have to research and watch for. When we get to their mansion, we stop and they do their spiel.”

In the event you aren’t lucky enough to walk the lake with these high school history buffs, here’s some shore path highlights:

Lake Geneva’s first citizens were Native Americans, who lived here peaceably until they were forcibly displaced in the mid 1800s. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, affluent families who had been summering at resorts here found a true refuge as the Windy City rebuilt. The Wrigleys, Maytags and Schwinns are just a few of the movers and shakers who built summer homes on these shores, and the Wrigleys still have multiple residences here.

Century-old estates that cause pause include Stone Manor, the largest single- family home built on the lake and visible from Library Park; Glanworth Gardens, also known as The Driehaus Estate, is on the north shore of the lake, between Williams Bay and Lake Geneva, and features grounds designed by the landscape architects who gave us Central Park; and Aloha Lodge, on the southern shore, was once occupied by Tracy Drake of the Drake Hotel and still has his china inside.

No matter which direction you head, though, you’ll have plenty of breathtaking history to take in, and unlike my seventh graders, you don’t need a permission slip. Just show up and start walking.

Shore Path 101

Enjoy the Geneva Lake Shore Path more with these tips:

    There are four public entrance and exit points. In Lake Geneva, you can access the shore path at Library Park in the heart of the downtown district. There’s also plenty of parking there for your car. In the Village of Williams Bay, the public boat launch and beach offer public shore path access, however, parking is limited during the summer. In the Village of Fontana, there’s plenty of public parking, and you can get on the shore path through Reid Park. The Town of Linn offers shore path access on Linn Pier Road at the boat launch, though parking is limited.
    The only restrooms on the shore path are located in the public entrance and exit points above. If those are locked, and they could be depending on the time of day or year, most nearby restaurants will allow you to use their restrooms.
    Wear comfortable shoes with good arch support! On my first hike, I wore a pair of canvas Keds and was practically crawling by mile five.
    The Shore Path is public, but the yards, grounds and piers of the private homes along the path are not. Dogs are allowed, but must be leashed.
    Bikes and strollers are not permitted. The shore path is not handicap accessible and those with mobility issues should start at the Lake Geneva Public Library and limit themselves to about a half mile, east or west, for the smoothest terrain.
    Water, sunscreen and bug spray. Local stores in Lake Geneva sell a pocket-sized Shore Path guide, which gives a detailed history of estates and a map.
    Extreme heat and humidity can make the shore path unbearable, especially if you’re hiking the entire lake.
    The public access points allow picnics, and there are plenty of restaurants. In Lake Geneva, there are dozens. Pier 290 in Williams Bay, with local and organic cuisine, is on the lake and Harpoon Willies is just off the path. Gordy’s and Chuck’s in Fontana are on the lake, and both have great burgers.

Geneva Lake Shore Path Routes For Every Fitness

  • OUT OF SHAPE – Start at Library Park in Lake Geneva, and head west until you begin to tire. Then, turn around and head back. If you can walk for 20 minutes, you’ll see some of the Wrigley homes.
  • NOT LIKELY TO CODE – I am overweight, do not regularly exercise and yet I walk eight miles with 200 seventh graders every spring. Our stretch is the easiest for those who want to spend two to three hours on the shore path, and starts at the Williams Bay boat launch and ends at Library Park in Lake Geneva.
  • FAIRLY FIT – You can tackle the southern shore, with its steeper terrain that angles and pitches forward. You’ll cover about 10 miles through Lake Geneva, Linn and Fontana.
  • FIT AND/OR DRIVEN – Take on the entire 20-plus-mile shore path! Jennifer Kinney has done it the last five years, and says it’s about a 10-hour hike. Breaks and stretches are crucial, she says, and she goes through about a gallon of water. Her other advice? “Wear good shoes,” she says. “That will be what kills you, your feet.”

 This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article. 

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Lisa Schmelz is an award-winning freelancer writer, whose work has appeared in major daily newspapers, national magazines and books. She lives in Delavan, where she also works as a special education teacher.